The challenge of course design


At the start of the school year I was asked to be part of the intermediate arts rotation and it was decided that I would create a digital photography curriculum that could be repeated every 5 weeks with a different group of students. Groups meet once a week for 90 minutes.


After some research I found a great resource, Tony Northrup’s DSLR Book: How to create stunning digital photography ( and I have built an introductory course around this. Students do not have to purchase the textbook. It is basically a teacher resource only. However, I do tell students that I am using this book as the main resource for the class and they are encouraged to buy it themselves if they develop a keen interest in digital photography.

Presentation of lessons via Google Sites

Lessons are laid out in a Google Site using the Announcements template for each week’s lesson. All lessons are displayed in a section called ‘News’ in the website. Lessons are ‘released’ on a weekly basis and until release they are kept in an Archive section of the website that is not visible to the students. The front page of the Google Site has an Announcements widget embedded that shows the latest lesson.

Lesson structure

  1. The first lesson has been used to set students’ folders up in Google Drive, getting to know their camera and doing a basic exercise to identify subjects or topics to photograph. At first I had the students set up folders called Photography and Journal. The Photography folder was intended for storing students’ best photos since they were encouraged to take lots of photos but only keep 3 to 5 photos when they were done with the lesson. The Journal folder was intended for writing short explanations of why they chose the 3 to 5 photos every lesson.
    • Reflection 1: I had found that the folder creation and consequent organisation were confusing to students. So I have consolidated the folder creation to a Best Photos folder only. The Best Photos folder contains one folder for every week’s lesson. This folder contains the best photos of the week as well as the explanation of why those photos are the best photos of that week.
    • Reflection 2: Recently Google Classroom has been released. Since Google Classroom has a Turn In function, I have stopped asking students to use the folder structure above since the Turn In function makes the submission of the best photos and the explanation of why they are the best photos much more intuitive, i.e. the tool fades into the background and the focus returns to the learning. I will still ask students to create a Photography folder in Google Drive so that they have one place where they can store all of their photos.
  2. During the second lesson students watch a short video clip by Tony Northrup that gives them 6 quick tips to improve their photography right away. Students also get the opportunity to share any photo editing apps they have used on their devices. I allow students right from the start to use photo editing apps to ‘improve’ the quality of their photos. After students have watched the video, they use the rest of the class to go and take some ‘thoughtful’ photos, i.e. not just randomly shoot subjects but try to identify subjects that are worth shooting. They need to pick 3 photos from the 20+ photos they have taken and write me why they are choosing those photos.
    • Reflection: I am trying to train students to take more time when they are taking photographs since careful composition takes time. This works well for most students, but I find some students are disengaged because they are not able to internalise the value of taking more time to take photos. I need to find a way to draw them into this exercise. I will possibly have to think of contextualising the lesson in some way, i.e. allow them to identify a specific topic they are interested in to take photographs of.
  3. In the third lesson I briefly introduce students to five principles of composition, i.e. rule of thirds, rule of space, having a focal point, simplifying a composition and changing your angle of view. A copy of what I say is published on the Google Site for students’ reference.
    • Reflection: This lesson has worked well most of the time. Initially I asked students to submit 5 examples that showcase each of the 5 principles of composition. Students did not have to submit a written explanation for their choices. This has proved too much for students to accomplish despite encouraging them to submit the same photo for each principle of composition whenever possible (the encouragement being that a great photo showcases most of the principles of composition). I will reduce this to three in future but ask students to explain their choice. This will encourage them to think about their thinking. Students will possibly have to use an app that allows them to annotate their photos, e.g. Notability or Skitch.
  4. In the fourth lesson students are introduced to 5 more principles of composition, i.e. showing scale, the use of lines, the use of patterns, the use of natural frames and symmetry. Once again a written copy of the lesson is published on the Google Site for students’ reference.
    • Reflection: This lesson works well too. Students were asked to submit 2 examples of each principle explained in this lesson with an explanation of why the photos chosen showcase the relevant principle of composition. However, I find that at this point students are starting to fall behind. For some reason students do not see unfinished assignments from the arts rotation as homework …
  5. In the fifth lesson we consolidate the previous 4 weeks’ work and I work with students to ensure they have completed all of their assignments. Students who are finished with all of the work are encouraged to find more subjects to take photos of or to take time to learn more about the photo editing apps they have been using.
    • Reflection: This lesson has proved to be an important lesson to help students complete the unit.

Overall reflection

I am looking for ways to enable students to own their learning, i.e. develop skills to manage self, and to add differentiation but ensure students are able to accomplish the learning intentions. Most of the tasks in the lessons outlined above are relatively open-ended but with clear expectations. This encourages managing self and adds a level of differentiation to the curriculum since students will use unique pathways to accomplish the learning intentions.

Recent research to understand the dynamics of MOOC’s have shown what most experienced teachers know: when the content is delivered in a modular way, students find the accomplishment of learning intentions more manageable. This got me thinking that if I package the principles of composition as mini modules and allow students to choose their own learning path through the modules, it may personalise the learning experience more and so both contextualise and differentiate the learning for the students.


I plan to redesign the course. During the first two weeks students will start the course in a prescriptive way since this will set them up for success.

  • Week 1: Set up Google Drive, get to know your camera and possibly show the 6 Quick Tips video by Tony Northrup.
  • Week 2: Explain the rule of thirds (since this is probably the most fundamental principle of composition), give students an opportunity to develop a basic mastery of the rule of thirds and allow students to share their favourite photo editing apps. Students will also be given an opportunity to play around with these apps and use them to create a photo from a photo they have taken that showcases the rule of thirds.
  • Week 3 – 5: Post 9 mini modules on Google Sites that students can complete in any order but they have to complete 3 modules a week. Each module will have a mini video presentation that will be accompanied by a text explanation. Students will have to post their completed work in the Digital Photography Google Classroom.

I hope to post some feedback later. To lifelong learning!

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